Due to the continuing rise of COVID-19 cases in the state of Texas, the Texas Education Agency says school districts can delay the start of on-campus instruction for four weeks, or up to eight weeks with approval, if necessary.
(See a list of North Texas school starting dates at the bottom of this article)
TEA Commissioner Mike Morath made the announcement Friday morning, saying, "Today we've announced that every school that needs it can adopt a four-week back to school transition window where instruction can be fully virtual if need be. This should give us time to work collectively to flatten the curve on this epidemic. At the same time, if that is insufficient time, local school boards have the ability to adopt an additional four-week transition window should that be necessary."
With the decision, school districts are now able to temporarily limit access to on-campus instruction for the first four weeks of school. After those four weeks are up, a school district would need TEA board approval to limit on-campus access for an additional four weeks.
Morath says the new guidelines were designed to give school districts a lot more flexibility to deal with figuring out the best methods to safely have class.
"That transition period should resolve much of the angst that I think school leaders are feeling in terms of how to ensure that they have both a loving, learning environment but one that is safe for students and staff," said Morath in an exclusive interview with NBC 5 education reporter Wayne Carter. "If facts on the ground change, we've had to change our framework and guidance accordingly, and if that's the case in December or January, then we will make adjustments."
Morath said he still believes schools need to be working to return to in-person learning so that the public health crisis doesn't turn into an education crisis where a generation of students falls behind.
STAAR tests will likely remain but Moran says the consequences for teachers for poor performance could change.
"The need for diagnostic information on kids is pretty compelling. We need to know what they know, what they can do, what they have learned academically," said Morath. "The consequences that come from that is a different question entirely and I think we need to make a bunch of adjustments, this year, into… the stakes, so to speak, that exists from these tests."
Morath didn't offer a lot of reassurance for teachers and parents who are afraid to go back into the building, other than to say the new guidelines will let school districts have flexibility to try different methods to keep everyone safe.
"They can sort of set parameters of what happens on campus entirely and that allows them to figure out exactly how many kids will be showing up on campus, to adjust classroom sizes or classroom schedules accordingly," said Morath. "Whether it's social distancing, or masks, or regular handwashing, or lunch in the classroom -- whatever changes they're making locally they have the ability to get those procedures really refined."
On Thursday, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an order delaying in-person education until after Sept. 7 and several districts in the county, including Lancaster, Cedar Hill, DeSoto and Duncanville, all decided to delay opening until Sept. 8. Other districts, such as Plano, Dallas and Frisco, have announced plans to start the school year on time but with distance learning for several weeks before transitioning to face-to-face instruction after the Labor Day holiday.
Several other districts who have not yet decided how they will start their 2020-21 school year said they planned to do so next week.
The TEA guidelines do offer exceptions for families who lack internet access or who require the technology to allow students to learn at home, guaranteeing them access to on-campus instruction every day during the transition period.
However, also on Friday morning, the state of Texas committed to providing $200 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to the TEA for the purchase of eLearning devices and home internet solutions to enable remote learning for those who need assistance.
With this funding, the TEA will purchase and distribute devices, hotspots, routers, and more based on specific needs identified by local school districts. The funding would be used to establish a reimbursement program with a matching fund component tied to locally controlled Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) or district local funding.
"As school districts delay the start of in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year due to COVID-19, it is essential that we work to provide Texas students with the devices they need to connect and communicate online for classroom instruction," said Abbott in a prepared statement. "As we continue to combat COVID-19 in Texas, we are committed to providing reliable and effective solutions that will help students academically succeed while protecting public health."
This funding is in addition to a previously announced distribution of up to $400 million of coronavirus funds to reimburse districts for COVID-19 expenses incurred during the 2019-2020 school year. This funding will also establish a reimbursement program for devices and home internet costs incurred by school districts from May 21 through Sept. 1.
"No child should ever be denied the ability to achieve his/her dreams simply because he/she does not have technological devices or internet access. Education is the great equalizer and while that will look different in the near term, a move to distance learning to protect students and teachers can only be effective for all learners if they all are able to actively learn and participate. Today's actions by the governor and TEA will move us toward this goal of ensuring every child has equal access to the tools and resources necessary to achieve a high-quality education," said State Sen. Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen).
Additional changes announced by the TEA provide school districts with the ability to convert high schools, with school board approval, to a full-time hybrid model once students have transitioned back to on-campus instruction. This model will provide for a more socially distanced school experience, where students receive a portion of their instruction on-campus and a portion of their instruction remotely at home.
Also, one week prior to the start of on-campus activities and instruction, school systems must post for parents and the general public a summary of the plan—developed in consultation with their teachers, staff, and parents—that they will follow to mitigate COVID-19 spread in their schools based on the requirements and recommendations outlined in TEA’s updated public health planning guidance.
Morath says he and his wife are sending their children back to school on campus as soon as they're allowed to go.